Through the years, Sunland Park in New Mexico has developed a reputation for being a speed-favoring track. I think that reputation stems in large part from a string of impressive front-running winners in Sunland’s signature race — the $800,000, Grade 3 Sunland Derby — a few years back.
But the truth is, Sunland isn’t always a front-runner’s paradise where fast times and dominant winners are commonplace. To the contrary, there are days when the rail at Sunland is decidedly dead and front-runners struggle to hold off the sweeping rallies of late runners. In fact, the last two renewals of the Sunland Derby have been dominated by horses rallying wide from off the pace.
It’s hard to know how the track will be playing when the Sunland Derby is held for the 16th time on Sunday, March 24, but one thing seems certain: Speed horses are highly unlikely to have an easy time on the lead, because this race is packed with front-runners who figure to ensure a fast pace.
A brief glance through the past performances reveals that four of the ten entrants — Mucho Gusto (#1), Anothertwistafate (#2), Hustle Up (#3), and Diamond Blitz (#9) — have set the pace in the majority of their races, and while Mucho Gusto did show the ability to rate off the lead while winning the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes last time out, drawing the rail could force jockey Joe Talamo to be more aggressive in the early going and commit Mucho Gusto to a front-running gambit.
Despite the presence of three other speed horses, Mucho Gusto has to be considered the horse to beat. Trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, a frequent winner of the Sunland Derby, Mucho Gusto is the only graded stakes winner in the field, and his only defeat from four starts to date came when second behind stablemate Improbable in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity last December. A $625,000 purchase at a 2-year-olds in training auction, this son of Mucho Macho Man will be clearly favored to add a third graded stakes victory to his record on Sunday.
On the other hand, Mucho Gusto will be stretching out to 1 1/8 miles for the first time, and despite a stamina-oriented pedigree, he hasn’t really given the impression of being a colt who is crying out to run farther. Keeping in mind the very real possibility that he’ll get caught up in a fast pace on a closer-favoring track, I’m not sure that I want to rely on him winning at a short price.
Anothertwistafate, winner by seven lengths of the El Camino Real Derby, is the logical alternative on paper, but he’s been even more of a one-dimensional front-runner than Mucho Gusto. That’s not to say that Anothertwistafate couldn’t rate off the lead if necessary — we really don’t know if he can or can’t — but doing so may be a requisite if he’s going to challenge for victory. After all, in his three recent victories (all on the synthetic Tapeta Footings surface at Golden Gate Fields), he set slow fractions on the front end before accelerating away from his opponents in the stretch. He’ll have to go faster early to be part of the pace in the Sunland Derby, and he’ll have to do so while switching from a synthetic surface to dirt, a couple of significant challenges even for a colt with obvious talent.
That’s why I find myself drawn to the chances of Cutting Humor (#5). Two starts back, this Todd Pletcher-trained colt overcame an awkward start to finish second in a 1 1/16-mile allowance/optional claiming race at Gulfstream Park, beaten by only 2 ¼ lengths by the highly regarded Bourbon War, who came back to finish second in the Grade 2 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes.
Unfortunately, little went right for Cutting Humor in his most recent start, the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes on Feb. 18 at Oaklawn Park. The colt ran into trouble early on while racing in tight quarters, tossing his head in response to kickback before getting bumped hard and knocked outward several paths. Then, Cutting Humor made a premature mid-race move, sweeping up on the outside of horses to challenge for the lead before understandably tiring and retreating to finish seventh.
Cutting Humor can’t help but get a better trip in the Sunland Derby, and if the right circumstances arise — specifically, a fast pace and a dead rail — I can envision Cutting Humor producing a big rally in the homestretch to catch the front-runners and spring an upset victory.
Since his 8-1 morning line odds are appealing (and there’s a chance he could go off even higher), let’s bet Cutting Humor to win, then play him in a saver exacta with Mucho Gusto and Anothertwistafate on top:
Wagering Strategy on a $25 Budget
$11 to win on #5 Cutting Humor
$7 exacta: 1,2 with 5 ($14)
Good luck, and enjoy the race!